June 23, 2017

Assembling the Weekly Thing

I had been interested in creating a newsletter like the Weekly Thing for a while but I was worried it would be difficult to do and quickly turn into a chore. I wasn’t worried about the email part, I knew a service like TinyLetter could deal with that. The daunting part was getting the content structured the right way, even when I the bits of the content were mostly in other systems already.

I knew the main item I wanted to build it around were links to other sites that I use Pinboard to collect. But how to make that easy?

Workflow to the Rescue

As I thought about this I tried a number of options. I tried making an Automator workflow but that was weird, and even worse it meant I had to be on a Mac and I knew I would want to send this when I wasn’t near a computer. I started to look at Workflow and realized it might do the trick.

Workflow has a great feature to retrieve published metadata, such as description and date, from a URL (Get Article from Web Page). Sometimes when I stored URLs I didn’t write a description so that would be nice. I pulled the data using Pinboard’s RSS feed, put it in a loop getting a variety of data and assembling the draft content as I watched. Voila! 👏

The entire process that I use to create Weekly Thing is based on RSS (mostly) and tied together with Workflow on iOS. I have a collection of workflows that I run, with one master workflow that kicks everything off. The master workflow is responsible for ordering the sections and setting the cutoff date for content, which in my case is midnight of the relevant Saturday. The master workflow spawns the other workflows for each content section, passing into it the cutoff date for content.

Each workflow is then free to do whatever it wants as long as it returns a valid block of HTML back to the main workflow. I can chain as many of these modules together in whatever way I wish. Some of them don’t use RSS, like the photograph one. That prompts me to look at my photos and pick one, then fills in all the appropriate template text for me to finish off.

At the end the workflow combines all these blocks of HTML into one fully assembled newsletter and gives me the option to copy it, share it, generate a PDF or anything else I wish. I’m very happy with this. From here I put it in TinyLetter, do a final review and hit send!

Extensions

Since this is extensible, I can easily add new modules by creating another workflow that is then stitched into the assembly process. And because I’m using Workflow in iOS, I can access a wide variety of data from different systems. RSS is a basic one that many services support, but Workflow can look at my Calendar, Address Book and many others. I’ve thought about weird things like calendar statistics for example. Or if I really wanted to overshare I could pull in recent data from the Health app.

I’ve found that it’s easiest to understand Workflow when you see what other people do with it. Perhaps this will turn some lightbulbs on for others on how they could automate use Workflow effectively!

June 16, 2017

Introducing the Weekly Thing

A while back I tried a way of sharing links to things that I found interesting every week. I did it by making a link blog post and then sharing links to that blog post. I got more positive feedback on those posts than I expected. People really liked them and found value in what I was highlighting.

But I didn’t like the link posts cluttering up my blog. They felt different and I eventually decided to stop doing the posts mostly because I was frustrated with how my website was coming along.

Email Newsletters

I enjoy a number of weekly newsletters. I subscribe to MacStories for the members only Club MacStories newsletter. Patrick Rhones One More Thing is a very well written personal newsletter and a treat whenever it comes. Sitting down with an espresso and my iPad to casually read through weekly newsletters is a treat on the weekend.

Email newsletters are old school’. There is something about the medium that feels more personal and more conversational than others. I wanted to try this out, and realized that those old link posts were the right foundation to build upon.

Next I wanted to see how hard this would be. I quickly looked into TinyLetter and realized it would be pretty easy. I like that TinyLetter exists as a way for personal email newsletters. It’s very easy to use.

Weekly Thing

With the basis of my links I decided to put together a newsletter. I went with the somewhat goofy name of the Weekly Thing playing off my last name. Total aside, but I used to own the domain thing.org in the mid 90’s. I was at the U of MN at the time and I got an email from The Thing, a museum in Germany, asking if they could have the domain. I transferred it to them, seemed the right thing to do. My future as a domain squatter was determined at that time.

I’ve been quietly publishing the Weekly Thing for a few weeks now to an invited group of friends. I’ve been testing out my automation and the structure. I’m very pleased with how it’s working and this week put the [subscribe] page live and started sharing it. My first goal is to get to 100 subscribers and continue to flesh out the content. I hope you all enjoy it!

Go to the Weekly Thing to subscribe!

June 9, 2017

OmniFocus Tip: Using Context Notifications

I use OmniFocus as the core of my GTD system. I also keep notifications on my phone to a minimum, including for OmniFocus. OmniFocus on iOS has the ability to give you a notification when you enter or leave a context with a location. This is pretty handy and I’ve used it for some specific locations associated with my Errands context. Errands : Hardware store gives me a nudge if I am nearby and have tasks available. I’ve never used this feature with Home and Office contexts because it would be very noisy.

There are times however when I would like OmniFocus to be in my face at home or at the office. I may have a task in OmniFocus that I need to do when I get to work on Monday morning, or when I come home on Friday evening and a notification would help. I realized there is a really simple solution to this.

I have a Office context, and inside that context I created a Office with notification context. The context with notification has a location and notification with it.

Now I can easily put a very small number of tasks in the Office : Office with notificaiton context and know I will be notified when they are avialable. I’ve created a similar context for Home with notificaiton. This has already allowed me to not forget a couple of time sensitive things.

June 5, 2017

Thinking in Decades

This week I worked with Yahoo! customer support and deleted my Flickr account. I had deleted my Yahoo! account a couple of months ago when they had their second massive security notice of compromised accounts. When I got a notice letting me know that the Privacy Policy for Flickr was changing in association with the sale to Verizon I wanted to delete my account. I have no interest in Verizon hosting my photos, and frankly I don’t use Flickr anymore.

That was when I realized I had no way to access my Flickr account since the Yahoo! account was used to connect to it. I was happy thought that Yahoo! customer support was quick and made this easy to get done.

My Flickr account is no more now. I created that account probably a decade ago. Long before it ever became part of Yahoo!, back when Flickr was amazing and cool. Looking back this is a good reminder of how long our content lives online. Yet another example of how companies come and go and services come and go. To all of you using Facebook to keep family photos and pictures of your kids, think about this. This is why I feel so strongly about owning my content. It really isn’t that hard.

May 30, 2017

Turing Tumble on Kickstarter

My mother sent me a link to Turing Tumble on Kickstarter and the video totally got me. It is a super cool concept and a great way to explore the fundamental concepts of computing. The bits that can be flipped and other various objects are really neat.

I backed this and am looking forward (and hoping!) for the November delivery. This will be a great present for the kids (and me!) for Christmas.

The results of the Kickstarter are impressive. It has been live for less than 1 day and it’s very close to hitting it’s goal!

May 26, 2017

Speaker Suggestions

Through my work and being an active member in the technology community, I have a chance to see a lot of people present. Some of these are formal presentations with slides and ceremony, many of them are demos. As a result, I get a lot of chances to see people lead an audience through a topic.

Here are some things I see speakers do that I would recommend never to do.

Utilized”

I challenge if there is any place where utilized is a necessary word. In conversation, we may talk about how we use something, and if discussing systems, it’s common to discuss the utilization of something. But utilized? The most common place to see this word is on a resume. I tend to find this word starts coming out when people feel a need to formalize or make a topic bigger than it is. Speakers often talk about how teams utilized something to their benefit. You just used it.

Also, apply the above to leveraged. Keep your vocabulary simple and conversational.

This is worth the time

Sometimes speakers will start out by saying we’ll get through it quick.” Maybe a reference to I’m the only thing between you and happy hour.” The assumption is this is humor, but it immediately frames your listener to start thinking about the next thing, instead of you. Either your content is worth the time or not, whether it is before lunch or happy hour shouldn’t impact that.

Related to this is an even worse pattern of I’ll try not to bore you too much.” Self-deprecation is a common thing from speakers, but I really can’t think of a worse way to start your presentation.

Don’t steal your thunder

An anti-pattern I see very often is a presenter giving a demo but before the demo showing a slide that has bullets for all the things they are going to demo. It’s immensely more powerful to show the demo! There are a handful of capabilities that you want to highlight, but don’t highlight those in a static bullet list beforehand. Your audience wants to see it working, and you’re stealing your thunder by highlighting the capability before people see it!

Imagine if before unveiling the iPhone Steve Jobs would have shown pictures of it in slides, highlighted all the key features and capabilities, all in slides. And then after you’ve seen all that, showing you the demo. You can’t imagine it because it wouldn’t happen. Show the product, hit your key value points afterward when the audience has taken in the awesome stuff you have created. Those are the items you want them to leave with, and they will care more about them after they see it working.

I believe there is a corollary to this. The more slideware” and bullet lists that precede showing working software — the worse the working software is. The slides and bullets are compensating for a poor solution.

May 19, 2017

Using Project Templates

I’ve seen and read about people using project templates for a while, but I’ve never adopted them myself until recently. Mostly I found many of the means of managing project templates to be bothersome and I never dug into it further. That has changed recently, and I think many systems now support robust ways of importing projects and using them as templates.

What is a Project Template?

A project template is a set of actions and tasks that can be brought into your task management application. It’s significantly more powerful if the templates allow for some variable substitution for words or dates so that it can be customized for each use. It is even better if you can do some minor calculations on things like dates and indicate that one task is deferred or due relative to the date of another task.

Use Cases

I have found project templates to be particularly useful for three types of projects.

Frequent Activities

The most obvious use case for project templates is for recurring, relatively frequent events. At the office, I have multiple meetings that happen on a certain schedule, such as a team all-hands. Each time I do one of these meetings, there are a set of tasks I need to do. Determine agenda, prepare a draft, get input from others, arrange a guest speaker. Using a template for these events is very helpful.

Business trips are another good example. Each business trip has a series of before, during and after actions. I put these in a template with the proper variables and relative dates to help with trip planning and preparation.

Multiple Instances

One area where templates can be great is when you have multiple instances of the same thing with a slight variation. The best example I have for this is doing performance reviews. I have to write several of them, and each one has multiple steps. They are mostly direct copies of each other, but the person is different and possibly the dates. To make this easier I create a template and then run it for each person and can quickly build the multiple sets of projects that I need to get done for this process.

Infrequent Activities

I have found project templates to be a good way to make improvements to things that I rarely do. In fact, this is probably my favorite use of templates. It feels like a way to apply continuous learning to things you do once a year.

The template I made for Daylight Savings Time adjustment is a great example. I do this twice a year, and every time I tend to forget one or two clocks. There are also a couple of clocks that are tricky, and I often end up searching the Internet each time for instructions.

This year I made a project template for this that helps in many ways:

  • I put them in walking order so that I can optimally move through the house and not backtrack.
  • I made sure to capture the clocks that I tend to miss, like the timer for the aquarium lights.
  • For a couple of clocks that are very confusing to update I put the relevant notes directly in the tasks so I don’t need to search.
  • We have some clocks that update themselves, like our thermostats. They are not on the list so I don’t have to try and remember which ones I can ignore each time.

Now that I have a template I can do it faster, more efficient and know I didn’t forget anything.

A similar example to this is a recent template I made for Apple OS Upgrades. I have Macs, iPhones, iPads, Apple Watches and Apple TVs that all need upgrading. I now have a template so I can easily capture those activities when needed.

Another example that I’ve come to like a lot is project templates for major holidays. Christmas is a perfect example of a very fun time of year but also a complicated time. Sending Christmas cards out, traditions and getting presents add up to a lot of things to make sure you get done and don’t have a bunch of last minute things to do.

I created a template for this and was able to capture all of the main things that we do each Christmas. This let’s me have more confidence that I do not forget anything. The last item on these templates is usually a task that suggests to Update template with any changes from this year” which is a great way to get better for next year.

Scheduling

Project templates are handy, but often you want them to get setup on a schedule. I’ve decided to keep this out of my task management system and instead I have a task list in the Reminders application called Project Reminders.’ This is where I set the annual triggers to create various projects from their templates.

Next…

I purposefully kept this post independent of the tools that I use so I could just make a case for using project templates in your personal GTD system. In a future post, I’ll talk about the tools that I use to implement this.

May 17, 2017

Horseshoe Pits Completed!

Last weekend we finished putting in the horseshoe pits at the cabin and I’m very pleased with the result!

We have a lot of yard games at the cabin and I though it would be a lot of fun to add horseshoes to the mix. I honestly didn’t think that much about it and put a horseshoe set on my wishlist for Christmas. After getting the set I realized I had bit off more than I realized.

I found a great site for horseshoe plans. My brother-in-law helped me get the wood and cutting done and unfortunately the winter came before I got it all done. We finished digging the pits into the ground this spring after the ground thawed.

I really like the throwing platforms and the backboard. This is a more complex pit than you absolutely have to have, but it’s really nice to play on. Now I just have to work on my game!

May 11, 2017

Minnesota Original: Layne Kennedy

My friend and photographer Layne Kennedy was recently featured on Minnesota Original. I met Layne when I took his Wintegreen Dog Sledding workshop and he’s a great photographer, teacher and amazing story teller.

February 18, 2017

Steve Wozniak at Augsburg College

Steve Wozniak, or Woz”, was a guest at Augsburg College today and it was a pleasure to see him talk about his early days in technology and his first experimentations with microchips which eventually led to the creation of the Apple I and beyond.

Woz is an amazing person. He individually did more to create the personal computer industry than possibly anyone else. He is a creative genius with technology. He so clearly is passionate and understands the design of technology like nobody else. On top of all that, Woz just seems like a nice person. Woz seems like someone that you’d love to have dinner with and just spend time discussing the world. He’s an engineer’s engineer”. You could give yourself a nearly impossible challenge just by looking at your project and asking What would Woz do with this?”

Steve Wozniak at Augsburg College

Some highlights from the discussion with Woz:

  • Woz shared many stories of working with Steve Jobs and how the two of them worked together. He also took great lengths to highlight the role that Mike Markkula played and referred to him as the third founder” of Apple.
  • Woz talked about his early experimentation with technology and how he focused on smiles minus frowns” as a simple way to guide himself in life. Add up your smiles, minus the frowns, and if that works, you’re going the right direction.
  • I chuckled when Woz mentioned that the Homebrew Computer Club met every two weeks, which is now by far the most common iteration length for agile development teams.
  • The open culture of the Homebrew Computer Club is one of those early framing events that continues today in open source software. Everyone was sharing designs for the betterment of the group and the industry.
  • The Apple I design was given away to the club, but Woz had the Apple II design already done, and they knew that was what they would build Apple Computer on.
  • Woz highlighted the role of builders and makers”, and that that continues today.
  • Much of Woz’s designs were driven by strict constraints of time and money. The original Apple designs were done with minimal components to reduce cost and elegant designs. The Apple floppy drive that Woz created used 8 chips compared to 40 or 50 in other drives. Woz also shared the funny story how the floppy drive was made in two weeks so that he had a reason to go to CES in Las Vegas.
  • It was fun to hear Woz highlight the importance of continuing to learn and doing that through side projects. He would design systems all day, and then for fun, he would design systems for a different purpose. Always learning and driven by passion.
  • It was so fun to hear underneath Woz’s engineering drive a constant desire to focus on the person. The person is always more important than the device. Figure out how to make the device usable. He highlighted how his original design for the Apple I and Apple II were driven by this, while others in the industry just showed complicated computers” with switches and buttons.